Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The 'Framing Science' Kerfluffle

Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney have set off quite a to-do in the science blogosphere with articles in Science (full text here, scroll down and link is on the left sidebar) and the Washington Post. They call on scientists to adopt new methods for communicating their results to the wider public -- namely strategic 'framing' of scientific issues. They are both interesting articles and worth the read - as are (some of) the billion tons of electrons that have been spilt in response.

A few thoughts:
  • I confess when I saw Nisbet speak several months ago, my initial reaction was fairly negative. A first glance 'framing' sounds uncomfortably like 'spin.' Science is supposed to lay claim to a less-biased view of reality -- it slowly and methodically uncovers truths about our world and pushes them up to the surface. Should we really throw all that credibility and objectivity away just for the sake of convincing a few more people that evolution or global warming are really real? Does it make sense for scientists to descend to the level of the PR hack?
  • Lately, I've mostly come around to their way of thinking. Like it or not, framing is something that scientists do constantly. We've all fielded The Question from intelligent non-experts: "So what do you study anyway?" It would be nice to be able to explain to them in the fullest of detail the intricacies of your thesis (and some people try!), but in the real world you only have about 5 minutes (and probably less). You would like them to walk away feeling like they learned something, so you simplify, and you try to find a way of making it meaningful and interesting to them. That's framing - it's not evil. Since we already do it, we might as well learn to do it well.
  • Framing isn't a substitute for old-fashioned science education, but improving education will only yield results 20-30 years down the line. N&M's central point is that to impact public opinion about global warming (or evolution or stem cells or whatnot) over the next election cycle a communications game-plan is called for. This is essentially a political strategy (and hence the controversy), but I think the general point still holds. Framing happens whether we like it or not -- frame or be framed.
  • Somewhat amusingly, N&M have prompted some visceral negative blog reactions from the vocal atheist web-community -- notably biologist PZ Myers (here and here). I suspect much of this has to do less with the abstract idea of framing rather than with some of the specific frames they propose. In particular, their criticism of Richard Dawkins doesn't seem to have won them any converts. However the notion that attempting to frame evolution to make it more palatable to the largely religious American public is an unforgivable appeasement of religion strikes me as fairly narrow and silly. But that's fodder for another post.
  • Lastly: Can I just say that I find the entire field of communications research vaguely troubling? Are we all so uninformed and easily swayed by what we hear and read and see? Sadly it seems to be true, and the proof is that advertising works and works well. Our brains are apparently totally defenseless to suggestion and innuendo and, well, framing. Kinda terrifying, if you think about it.


Anonymous said...

From Frame dragging to Frame or be Framed I’m beginning to feel a bit like the guy in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. The problem that science and scientists have in regards to communicating with the general public, especially with issues such as evolution or stem cell research, is that nothing is ever an absolute. Scientists by their very nature are always questioning, challenging and re-evaluating. Religion sets down absolutes and there is no need to think or question, just accept. Galileo Galilee brought before the inquisition on charges of heresy for not sticking to church doctrine that the earth was the center of the known universe. Roger Bacon and Charles Darwin also paid the price for advocating experimentation and observation over unquestioning acceptance of church doctrine. So no matter how you “frame” it, best to watch out for the red hot pokers that will invariably appear in the hands of most of us God fearing monkeys out here in American Idol land!!

Tim said...

I dunno, Anon - I don't think religion and science are eternally at odds, but like I said, that's for another posting.

Sorry the frames are getting you down, I promise the next post will have nothing to do with the word.

Karen said...

Knowledge is always welcome to the common person. The more information the more we know we don't know. I always appreciate the assemble into the complications of everyday life.

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